Mayor Calls Chain Gang Use 'Unconscionable'

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The MLB All-Star game occurs Tuesday in Phoenix, Ariz., and Maricopa County Sheriff is planning to have the stadium grounds cleaned by prisoners chained together for work — as a form of punishment. Host Michel Martin speaks with Phoenix mayor Phil Gordon about his concerns regarding the Sheriff's decision to dispatch chain gangs.

MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.

Coming up, in honor of the final shuttle mission, we launch our special series profiling several pioneers of space travel. It's called Flying High: First in Their Class. Our guest today is astronaut Dr. Bernard Harris. He was not only the flight surgeon on two shuttle missions, he was the first African-American to walk in space. We'll have that conversation in just a few minutes.

But, first, we are going to talk about a sporting event that may be turning into a political spectacle. Phoenix, Arizona is set to host baseball's all-star game tomorrow night. But even before the umpire shouts play ball, another show may be happening outside the stadium. Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Arizona's Maricopa County, has pledged to send out chain gangs. That's groups of prisoners chained together to clean the grounds outside Chase Field before and during the game.

Sheriff Arpaio says the three chain gangs will be made up of inmates convicted of drunken driving. All of whom volunteered for the event. And one of the three gangs he says he will use is all female. And another is made up of undocumented immigrants. We wanted to talk about this with the mayor of Phoenix, Phil Gordon. He's with us now. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us once again.

PHIL GORDON: Oh, I'm excited to be on the air and promote what's going to be the coolest game that the all-stars have ever had.

MARTIN: Mr. Mayor, are you excited about having the all-star game in your city?

GORDON: You know, unbelievably excited. It's an opportunity for the world to see what Phoenix and the state of Arizona is really about. It is a friendly city. It's a caring city. It's a beautiful city.

MARTIN: Well, I wanted to talk about that. The fact is there has been an unusual degree of sort of interest in the game apart from the sporting event itself and what about this idea of the chain gang? How did you react when you first heard about it? How did you first hear about this idea that the sheriff has?

GORDON: The city police, myself or anyone in the city really learns about anything from the sheriff's office. It's on television, the radio. That's how he believes a, quote, "professional," quote law enforcement sheriff should be acting. He is independent. And unfortunately uses that independent position to hurt a lot of people.

MARTIN: Well, I take it you don't agree with it. You don't agree with the idea? And what's your objection to it?

GORDON: Well, not at all. During his reign - and that's the word I use - he created a tent city, which during the summer here, when we hit 115, 120 degrees, it hits 140 degrees in the tents, people are suffering. Most of those people, by the way, haven't even been convicted yet. Then to parade people in plastic chains only at times and only in places where he the sheriff can get on television, all it does is not only create a negative problem for the city and the state - the fear of confrontation between himself and the protesters, having neo-Nazis and anarchists supporting him or objecting to him, it's just an explosive situation, which for the most part he looks the other way and doesn't care.

MARTIN: Well, let me just ask you about this, though, because I think he says that one of these chain gangs will be comprised of people who are convicted of drunken driving. But part of the issue here is to let people know that drunken driving is not a good idea and that there are adverse consequences and one of those adverse consequences is embarrassment. So what's wrong with that?

GORDON: You're taking individuals in what was 115 degree heat, parading them in front of the television cameras where you have protesters on both sides of the immigration issue as well as supporting or not supporting the sheriff, many of whom are armed. And having our officers out there expending money and diverting resources at a time when we need to keep everybody safe. And it's a safe city, that's why we've stayed safe, is just also unconscionable and a waste of money.

MARTIN: So it's needlessly provocative is what you're saying. You think it's needlessly provocative. You expect that there will be demonstrators there who are angry about the fact that Arizona passed what many people consider an extremely harsh law aimed at curbing illegal immigration. What are you anticipating in the realm of demonstrations about the anti-immigration law?

GORDON: We are confident and I'm confident that actually this will be a very, very peaceful all-star game. That's what Phoenix residents are about. And that's what our police and fire fighters have insured that it will be about. Let me say and you'd be the first to break this news. Our chief of police spoke to the assistant sheriff last night and the sheriff, through his assistant chief, has acknowledged that what he will do, if he does anything with chain gangs, will be do it away from the heart of the baseball game and downtown and do his own thing away where it will be safe. And, really, not take away from the great all-star game that's here.

MARTIN: You just, you know, told us obviously you're very excited about having the game there. Many people are as well. Despite the fact that there are people who did try to get the game moved out. You know, you're an elected official. You were elected to represent your city and to make decisions on behalf of the citizens there. But as you also mentioned, so is Sheriff Arpaio, who has a very different vision of how to resolve these kind of explosive and, you know, difficult issues. What do you make of that? I mean, he's been reelected four times since his career began in 1992. You have also.

So what do you think this means? Do you think that - you got two such different visions of how to proceed here in the same community?

GORDON: There's been more violence along the border in Mexico and in Arizona in particular because of the drug trafficking and the fact that people smuggle human beings in without any care of life in the border. So what happened is with the frustration with those that care, but are busy, have kind of let over the years, individuals that they felt were either extremists or jokes that wouldn't have a chance to come into power, they came into power quietly. And they developed their own support network and organization.

And those learned how to use the media very effectively with soundbites and showing people that they are tough and that they are there to protect the people. So what happened was these individuals came into power and then they created a reign of terror.

MARTIN: Well, just to end on a slightly different note...

GORDON: Hopefully positive.

MARTIN: I was going to ask who are you rooting for? Is there even any question?

GORDON: There is no question at all. The home team. In this particular case I can't lose, can I? Well, you know what? Being a good politician, I think I'll take the winning team. How's that?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: OK. Phil Gordon is the mayor of Phoenix, Arizona. He joined us from there. Mr. Mayor, thank you so much for joining us.

GORDON: Thank you very, very much.

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